Notes from #SXSWi: Adrian Hon – Creating the Code: A BBC Transmedia Documentary #thecode

I’m attempting to write up every single session I went to at SXSWi. Will be mostly about games, but also how tech can kill, neuroscience, digital anthropology, civic science and more.

Adrian Hon – Creating the Code: A BBC Transmedia Documentary

http://schedule.sxsw.com/2012/events/event_FP990220

Since they started, I’ve been very interested in the work of Six to Start, founded by brothers Adrian and Dan Hon following their work for Mind Candy on the groundbreaking ARG (Alternate Reality Game) Perplex City. I was due to work with them on Spooks: Code 9 before I ducked off to join the Wellcome Trust instead in 2008 but have been keeping an eye on their projects in the years since. They always seem to be up to something interesting.

Dan has since left the company, but Adrian remains and the company continues to produce things that sound intriguing and novel, the latest being the Zombies Run Game. Last year, it was The Code, a BBC show about maths, presented by Marcus du Sautoy, that contained a hidden transmedia treasure hunt created by Six to Start. I signed up for the kick off, which involved receiving a postcard which had part of a visual clue on it and would require collaborating with the other postcard holders to solve. I hate to admit it, but that was as far as I got, I didn’t immediately get what I had to do and put it aside and forgot about it.

When I saw Adrian was speaking about it at SXSWi, though, I thought I’d go along and see what I’d missed. And, as I’ve worked with the BBC previously on a similarly large project around a TV property, I was interested to see what their experience had been.

From my understanding, the postcard clue needed to be put together with all the other post card clues, which then formed a shape. The players did this via the Facebook fan page, and the animated composite image is here. When turned into a 3D model, this unveiled the shape of the prize, a mathematical sculpture by artist Bathsheba Grossman.

This was all part of the pre show/pre game build up. With the show transmission, the treasure hunt proper began. I’m not exactly clear on how this worked, but it involved looking for clues in the BBC show itself and there are more details here. There were also four flash mini games and a puzzle book to solve. The three finalists who were first to “crack the code” were invited to a live event at Bletchley Park (viewable here) where they had to solve clues against the clock to find the overall winner.

It sounds like an absolutely mammoth undertaking, so was it successful? From Six to Start’s own site, here are the stats for The Code:

  • 1,000,000+ players of The Code Flash games
  • TV show significantly outperformed benchmarks on iPlayer and 7 day viewing figures
  • 100,000+ treasure hunt players engaging in the overarching meta-puzzle
  • 300,000+ interactions on the Facebook fan page
  • 1000+ photos, videos, 3D models, and a wiki with 100,000 views and 2000+ edits – all created by users!

The whole thing was really involved and quite complex, not to mention on a traditionally unpopular subject, maths, so over 100k players for the meta-puzzle is impressive. I do wonder how many stuck through the whole thing, ie, how many truly dedicated players there were, and would be interested in more stats on that. But still, it does seem like quite an achievement.

To pull this off required quite an operation behind the scenes of course, and we heard some instructive stories about how they did it. It was especially impressive since it sounded like they had a not massive budget, with little in there for marketing, and had to rely on their own twitter following for the pre-game puzzle solving.

There were a number of advantages about working with a TV programme. There is crossover and synergy and a flow, between the TV and online audiences. The media are complementary – video is good for explaining science, but games can be richer. However, there are disadvantages too.

There is considerable uncertainty about what will make the final programme, and a huge uncertainty about the transmission date. TV schedulers often decide the TX date late on, and even then it can be changed at the last minute. They just had to be flexible to deal with this. To deal with the uncertainty about the edit, they made sure they picked out quite a lot more shots per show than they needed to use as clues, knowing that several would get cut and they’d be left with probably just enough.

Another problem with working with a TV show is that they are usually an entirely separate production team. Moreover, they are a separate production to the BBC commissioning team that you will be working with as well. Six to Start’s solution to this was canny, they embedded a producer at the BBC, and a web producer in the programme production team. That meant that they had someone who was effectively both part of each of the other teams as well as their own, and that the communication problems that could otherwise arise were averted. Smart.

These weren’t the only challenges with creating something like this though. The solution had to be kept secret, and Hon recommended that only two people should ever know the final answer, that it should never be written down and that data relating to it should be encrypted. That sounds a little extreme but I guess when you think that the whole project is scuppered if this is given away, it’s quite reasonable.

Balancing the game is a challenge. They needed it to be done within three weeks, but equally it couldn’t happen too quickly. So to keep it challenging they made multilayered puzzles, but also provided encouragement along the way (but no outright hints) such as suggesting that users set up a wiki. Though the game was challenging, he did suggest that you can never make it too easy to actually get into at the start.

Failure of some sort, he suggested, was inevitable. The puzzle would be broken in some way, people might do something unexpected, and things would go wrong. So it was important that they, and their partners, were all prepared for this.

Really interesting to hear all this, lots of great insight and a fascinating project. Sadly, it sounds like the BBC is likely to produce few one offs like this in the future, instead moving towards using just one platform for their online content of this sort. There wasn’t much detail on this, so if that’s true I’d love to be pointed in the direction of some more information about what this would be. Anyone know more?

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